'Tigers are a symbol of all that is splendid, mystical and powerful about nature. The loss of tigers would inevitably mean the loss of cultural and spiritual values that connect humans to the wild world.'' The Global Tiger Initiative
The tiger is instantly recognizable with their striking coats, and majestic stance. However, what is not well-known, is the dangerously low numbers of these formidable beings living in the wild. Passionate organizations have taken the initiative to reverse the declining populations, on-ground, whether through scientific and field research, such as Panthera or The Wildlife Conservation Society, or integrating policy-oriented work, such as the Global Tiger Initiative.
As Andrew Oplas, Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) Communications and Public Relations Specialist, describes, Global Tiger Initiative was founded in 2008 by Robert B. Zoellick, Former President of the World Bank, in response to the wild tigers being severely endangered. GTI unites international partners (governments, international organizations, civil society, the conservation and scientific community, and the private sector), supported by the World Bank, devoted towards saving wild tigers from extinction. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) implemented on-the-ground action efforts across the 13 tiger range countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam), but they were isolated in patches of areas. The GTI sought to transform these 'isolated interventions' into a comprehensive program across the entire tiger range, supported by funding from the international community, with initiatives implemented by the countries within the tiger habitat.
As Panthera, an organization which has united the world's leading wild cat experts to direct and implement effective conservation strategies for the world's largest and most endangered cats, states, the tiger is the world's largest cat, and one of the most threatened with extinction, as tigers are currently listed as 'Endangered' on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, with the mission to encourage and assist global societies to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature, ensuring the natural resources are ecologically sustainable) Red List of Threatened Species. Only six subspecies of tigers remain (the Bengal, Indochinese, Sumatran, Amur, Malayan, and the South-China subspecies), as three have gone extinct within the past 80 years (the Javan, last recorded in the 1970s; the Caspian, lost in the 1950s; and the Bali, lost in the 1930s).
According to The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), devoted to global conservation through saving wildlife, these 'solitary and beautiful' hunters prowl alone as expert hunters, eating large mammals, such as deer, pigs, and buffalo, roaming vast ranges of land, requiring access to large populations of prey. As GTI notes, a tiger was photographed at 3,400 meters in altitude, the highest elevation ever reported, in mountainous Bhutan, preying on yaks, cattle, and takin. WCS continues, hundreds of thousands of tigers once roamed across Asia; today, tigers only occupy 7 percent of their historical range. Andrew Zakharenka, Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) Wildlife-Governance Specialist, confirms, illustrating the plight of the wild tiger populations. Zakharenka notes, 'Asking a 3-year-old about tigers, he or she would reply, 'A tiger has stripes.'' A tiger having stripes is common knowledge; however, people are generally unaware how endangered the tigers are. When people are asked how many wild tigers they believe are in existence, people generally respond with an inflated number, such as 100,000. The unfortunate fact: only 3,000 wild tigers remain in the wild, where there are more tigers living in captivity, that in the wild.
As Oplas continues, tigers are known as shy, territorial beings, requiring a vast space, avoiding humans; tigers are prolific breeders capable of maintaining healthy populations, only without human interference. GTI illustrates, recalling a tiger killed by a train. An adult male was dispersed from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, and was hit by a train, killed on the tracks bisecting the Mukandra Hills-Dara National Park. 'It is always tragic when a tiger is killed by poachers'. This was tragic for the individual tiger, but perhaps, more important, the tiger population lost some good dispersal genes.' GTI notes the conservation challenges the Amur (generally referred to as Siberian) tigers face (currently living in the Russian Far East), as they have high infant mortality rates, coupled with low genetic diversity.
According to GTI, the tiger serves several imperative roles: as an indicator species, an umbrella species, and most importantly, an apex predator. As an indicator species, the tiger speaks to the status of human society on the 'larger question of sustaining environmental quality.' Zakharenka notes, as an indicator species, the tigers react to changes, such as the decrease in prey; as an apex predator, the tiger controls the entire ecosystem. As GTI continues, the decline of large predators, such as the tiger, can result in the overabundance of herbivores, such as deer, which then results in negative repercussions on tree regeneration and seed dispersal; consequently, these changes cause long-term changes in the natural flora and fauna, which potentially leads to species losses.
The shy, solitary hunters are being hunted, due to the long demand for their parts, which include their skins, meat, bones, teeth, claws, and the derivatives of these parts. According to Panthera, wild tigers are being hunted to meet the demands of the lucrative illegal international trade of tigers and their parts, 'estimated to yield more than $6 billion a year.' An estimated 600-650 Indochinese tigers (primarily living in Myanmar, southern China, Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia) are believed to exist in the wild, as the IUCN estimates 'no individual Indochinese tiger population surpasses 250 animals.' As the wildlife trade is the most immediate threat to the survival of the wild tigers, addressing and reducing that demand is crucial in the conservation of wild tigers, 'a complex issue,' to Oplas.
As Oplas describes, tiger parts were used for medicinal purposes since the 18th and 19th centuries in Southeast Asia, where hunting tigers was also a sport. In India, the once mammoth tiger populations were hunted to near extinction. Currently, the demand for the tiger parts is driven by the rising prosperity of the middle class in eastern Asia, such as in China and Vietnam; parts, such as the skins are worn, or used as decorative pieces. Zakharenka continues, the derivatives of the tiger parts are also fermented for wine, believed to be an aphrodisiac, in addition to use in traditional medicine. Oplas confirms, it is a status symbol to buy tiger wine.
As Zakharenka observes, although tiger conservation has been a long term program, the demand component had been overlooked. According to GTI, GTI partners are engaged in reducing the international demand for tiger parts and other wildlife through consumer campaigns, which connects the loss of the tiger to the broader issues of ecological devastation and loss of biodiversity. The aspiration is to give value to existing awareness raising efforts, defining target audiences, such as local communities, with the long-term goal of implementing global awareness campaigns for the 'permanent reduction of demand for dead tigers.' As Zakharenka continues, the goal is to create a comprehensive program on both the national and global components, first by engaging the local communities, as each tiger region country addresses their own specific issues.
A second major threat to wild tigers is the degradation, loss, and fragmentation of their habitat for economic development, and conversion of land to agricultural purposes. According to Panthera, the Bengal tigers (living primarily in India, as well as in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Nepal) have lost over 50 percent of their habitat across Asia, the largest decrease in India. As Zakharenka explains, the development and conversion of land creates an 'open area not accessible before,' where consequently, much more wildlife is killed, as poachers have easier access. To GTI, an effective solution is to implement a Smart Green Infrastructure (SGI), which would have a minimal impact on the wildlife, as well as enforcing laws on logging and agriculture. Infrastructure'transportation, mining, and hydroelectric power'is a major contributor to habitat loss; however, implementing a Smart Green Infrastructure would produce a sustainable landscape conversion. The SGI concept was introduced by the GTI Secretariat in 2009, seeking to avoid tiger habitats, minimizing and mitigating adverse impacts through tiger-friendly designs, and compensating for remaining damage, prioritizing tiger conservation landscapes, with an emphasis on avoidance policies and land-use planning. Oplas explains, the ultimate goal in implementing SGI is to intervene at the early stages of building the infrastructure, with mitigation planned in advance, assessing not only the environmental impact, but also the environment itself, facilitating the measures to maintain the tiger habitat.
In late May of 2012, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), driven by the inspiration and dedication to improving the lives of people in Asia and the Pacific, through investments and partnerships with developing member countries, has estimated an eight trillion dollar investment for a new infrastructure for 2010-2020. As Oplas observes, 'Without careful planning, it would be very easy for [the] biodiversity and habitat to be destroyed.' The goal is for the 13 tiger range countries to agree upon the SGI principles to implement policies which minimize the impact on the habitat during the initial planning process of building the infrastructure, designing networks in a manner which would negate the impacts on the habitat and biodiversity.
As Panthera notes, the extinction of the Caspian tiger was due to 'direct hunting of tigers, habitat loss and loss of wild prey.' No Caspian tigers live in captivity. Unfortunately, these threats still exist for the remaining six subspecies. As there are only 3,000 wild tigers living in the wild, we can all help in saving the tigers, something as simple as raising awareness. To Oplas, it is imperative to conserve tigers in the wild, and their natural home. In efforts to save the wild tigers, we can take advantage of the opportunities we have available to us, whether speaking with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners on conservation in the 13 tiger range countries, or connecting with local conservation groups. As three subspecies have already been irrevocably lost, we must be active in preventing the loss of our remaining wild tigers.
"Scared. Lost. Lonely. Is that a life for our tigers?"